Anakaren Ibarra believes that food is magic.
Ibarra, the newly appointed sous chef at Happy Gillis Cafe & Hangout, 549 Gillis St., grew up in a Mexican family that loved to cook.
“Aunts and Mom and Grandma in particular — she lived with us — were always in the kitchen,” says Ibarra, 26, who lives in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan.
Cooking has been a hobby for Ibarra for as long as she can remember. She started cooking professionally four or five years ago and previously worked as a cook at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, 1924 Main St.
She says a good meal has the power to do something that few things can: “Food brings people together.”
Q: What’s your favorite family dish?
A: There are so many. In particular, I’ve talked about mole in the past a lot. My mom taught me a fifth-generation mole recipe.
Tacos al pastor, they’re so popular now, but as a kid I asked for them as my birthday dinner every year. Back then, you couldn’t find street tacos anywhere unless your mom made them.
Q: Besides family, what other culinary teachers have you had?
A: I started cooking with a chef named Joe Shirley. He does Überdine (a Kansas City pop-up restaurant) now. He got me going with it and told me about local places to eat in Kansas City, and about supporting local restaurants.
He connected (Howard) Hanna (of the Rieger) to me. I worked at the Rieger for two years. I learned a lot there and didn’t realize how little I knew as far as techniques and skills, recipes and different spices.
Q: Are you classically trained in culinary arts?
A: I attempted culinary school five years ago but didn’t finish and that’s OK. That doesn’t bother me. Being connected to people so early on, my career sort of took off and I didn’t see a reason to go back to school.
Q: How did you transition from the Rieger to Happy Gillis?
A: I was working full time at the Rieger and part time at Happy Gillis. … I know one day I want to own a place that’s small and mom-and-pop, like Happy Gillis. Thinking ahead, I told (Happy Gillis owners Josh and Abbey-Jo Eans) what I was looking for and switched to full time with no space in between.
Q: Besides Happy Gillis, what are your favorite places to eat in Kansas City?
A: I say the Rieger because I’m biased, but I loved it even before I started working there. Everything’s from scratch. The people are great. The drinks are amazing.
And Ça Va (a champagne bar at 4149 Pennsylvania Ave. also co-owned by Hanna). I learned to love bubbles.
Q: Why is supporting local food important to you?
A: I’ve learned to understand that food is at its best when it’s in season. … You don’t need to do much with it when it’s right. Show it off a little bit. And you’re supporting your neighbors, your local farmers, and that money stays here. I like that.
Q: You were born in California — is your family local?
A: In the Hispanic community, family is everything. My family for the most part is in Kansas City, Kansas, but others are in north and south California and (I have) some sort of distant family in Mexico who we stay in touch with.
And it’s big. My grandma had seven kids, and each kid had at least three kids. … So I have 20-something cousins, and we’re pretty close.
Q: What is your go-to ingredient?
A: Eggs! I am obsessed with eggs. I love them. My grandma loved them as well. One, they’re delicious. Put it on top of anything and it makes it that much better. It’s also easy, and it makes (a) connection to my grandma. … Every time I make one, I think about her.